Care pathway 'used to cut costs'

Hospitals may be withholding food and drink from elderly patients so they die more quickly to cut costs and save on bed spaces, leading doctors have warned.

Thousands of terminally ill people are placed on a "care pathway" every year to hasten the ends of their lives.

But in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, six doctors who specialise in elderly care said hospitals across the UK could be using the practice to ease the pressure on resources.

The Liverpool Care Pathway, which withholds fluids and drugs in a patient's final days and is used with 29% of hospital patients at the end of their lives, is backed by the Department of Health. But the six experts told the Daily Telegraph that in the elderly, natural death was more often free of pain and distress.

The group warned that not all doctors were acquiring the correct consent from patients and are failing to ask about what they wanted while they were still able to decide. The doctors say that this has led to an increase in patients carrying a card stating that they do not want this "pathway" treatment in the last days of their lives.

One of the letter's signatories, Dr Gillian Craig, a retired geriatrician and former vice-chairman of the Medical Ethics Alliance, told the newspaper: "If you are cynical about it, as I am, you can see it as a cost-cutting measure, if you don't want your beds to be filled with old people."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "People coming to the end of their lives should have a right to high quality, compassionate and dignified care.

"The Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP) is not about saving money. It is an established and respected tool that is recommended by NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) and has overwhelming support from clinicians at home and abroad.

"The decision to use the pathway should involve patients and family members, and a patient's condition should be closely monitored.

"If, as sometimes happens, a patient improves, they are taken off the LCP and given whatever treatments best suit their new needs. To ensure the LCP is used properly, it is important that staff receive the appropriate training and support."